"Young Lions" is a term that jazz journalists used to describe the long list of straight-ahead, acoustic-oriented jazz improvisers who were born in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and London native Wayne Escoffery is among the many Young Lions who started building his catalog in the early 2000s. Escoffery, who plays post-bop and hard bop, is a tenor saxophonist with a big, full tone; his influences on the tenor include John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and Sonny Rollins, among others. Escoffery plays the soprano sax as a second instrument, and his most obvious inspirations on the soprano include Coltrane and Shorter. But whether he is on the tenor or the soprano, Escoffery has maintained a decidedly straight-ahead perspective that is quite faithful to the spirit of the Young Lions movement.
Although he is originally from Great Britain, he has spent most of his life in the northeastern part of the United States. Born in London on February 23, 1975, Escoffery was only 11 when he left the U.K. with his mother and moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1986. That year, he joined the New Haven Trinity Boys Choir, and it was also in 1986 that he began studying the tenor sax with saxophonist/clarinetist Malcolm Dickinson. Escoffery left the New Haven Trinity Boys Choir when he was 16, and playing jazz saxophone — not singing — became his primary focus. Escoffery was still in his teens when he met the famous alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who Escoffery has described as a mentor and a major inspiration in his life; Escoffery studied with McLean (who died in 2006) extensively at the Hartt School, a performing arts school in West Hartford. After that, he attended the New England Conservatory in Boston and graduated from that institution with a Masters in 1999 before moving to New York City the following year at the age of 25. Escoffery's visibility in the jazz world continued to increase; in the 2000s, his long list of activities ranged from being a member of trumpeter Tom Harrell's quintet to playing with the Charles Mingus ghost band to touring with veteran drummer Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet (a Thelonious Monk tribute band). Escoffery also backed his share of jazz vocalists in the 2000s, including Laverne Butler, Mary Stallings, Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Scott and Nancie Banks. Escoffery's first album as a leader, Times Change, was recorded for the German Nagel-Hayer label in early 2001; a second Nagel-Heyer studio date, Intuition, was recorded in 2003. Escoffery's first live album, Veneration, was recorded in 2006 for the Savant label and was followed by a studio session for Savant, Hopes and Dreams, in 2007 with Tom Harrell. In 2009, he led the groove-based date Uptown and the collaborative Playdate (both on Posi Tone). The following year he issued Tides of Yesterday, a collection of ballads and swinging neo-bop tunes in collaboration with his wife, vocalist Carolyn Leonhart (Steely Dan). Escoffery spent the next year touring and performing with the Mingus Big Band. In 2012, he released Only Son of One, his debut album with Sunnyside, followed the next year by Grown Folks Music, and he won the 62nd Annual Downbeat Critics Poll for rising star on tenor saxophone. Two concert albums, Live at Firehouse 12 and Live at Smalls, were followed by the studio effort Standard Solo and Duet Sketches in 2016 with Avi Rothbard. Escoffery responded to the state of the nation under President Donald Trump in early 2018 with Vortex, featuring his quartet with pianist David Kikoski, drummer Ralph Peterson, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. The set also included guest appearances from Jeremy Pelt, Kush Abadey, and Jacquelene Acevedo. ~ Alex Henderson